Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Flea, Sturgill Simpson and Indya Moore, Universal’s Queen & Slim is a remarkable new drama Emmy-winning screenwriter Lena Waithe (Netflix’s Master of None) calls “a love letter to blackness.” More Thelma & Louise than Bonnie and Clyde, the beautifully shot film marks the feature debut of acclaimed music video director Melina Matsoukas and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe, as well as Waithe, who based the script on a story she conceived with “A Million Little Pieces” writer James Frey.
Now playing in theaters, Queen & Slim had its world premiere at the AFI Fest earlier in November, garnering praise as “a visual and emotional powerhouse“ with masterful storytelling that belies its freshman status. The movie is an odyssey, with a story that resonates strongly in the era of Black Lives Matter. It follows two African-Americans on a bad Tinder date who end up on the run after killing a police officer during a traffic stop gone wrong.
“Something about the idea of a black couple getting pulled over after their first date and killing the cop that pulls them over in self-defense just blew me away,” Waithe comments about what initially drew her to the project in an interview with the American Film Institute. “I knew that I could tell a bigger story with that being the inciting incident. It gave me the space I needed to dive into so many things, and it gave me a chance to tell a big, yet grounded, love story.”
For New York Times opinion writer Michelle Goldberg, one of the big surprises of the movie is that it was made in the first place. “I left a recent matinee of Queen & Slim, the mesmerizing new outlaw romance directed by Melina Matsoukas, astonished on two levels.The film itself kept me rapt; I cried through the end and left the theater with the dazed, disoriented feeling you get when a movie makes you momentarily forget everything else in your life. But as amazed as I was by the experience of watching the film, I was equally amazed that it got made at all,” she writes, adding:
“From the title on, the film invites comparisons to Hollywood classics like Bonnie and Clyde and, especially, Thelma & Louise. (It can’t be a coincidence that the fugitives in Queen & Slim, like those in Thelma & Louise, spend much of the film in a flashy vintage turquoise car.) Producing those earlier movies, both subversive in different ways, was famously difficult. A studio executive reportedly complained about the Thelma & Louise screenplay, ‘Two bitches in a car. I don’t get it.’”
“Queen & Slim excels as a poetic romance between two virtual strangers who try to redesign their tragic fates together as everyone else abandons them — even those they trust, writes film critic Candice Frederick. “With cinematographer Tat Radcliffe’s warm color palette illuminating both the passion and hopelessness in the lovers’ eyes, Matsoukas and Waithe’s sometimes merciless film becomes a heartfelt story about love, pain, and fear in a harsh world.”
The two-time Grammy Award-winning Matsoukas is the visionary filmmaker behind some of this generation’s most powerful pop-culture experiences, including HBO’s Insecure, the Emmy award-winning “Thanksgiving” episode of Netflix’s Master of None, and Beyoncé’s “Formation” music video. According to Matsoukas, one of the main things to understand about Queen & Slim is that it is a love story. “That was one of the things that attracted me to the story,” she says in an interview with Refinery29:
“I realized that I hadn’t seen see a Black love story in so long and not really had I ever seen it between two dark-skinned actors. I remember going to [film] school and them saying, ‘Don’t cast a Black actress because it won’t be profitable.’ I was like, ‘I’m going to defy that.’ It was important for me to promote Black unity and promoting Black queens and kings being together and lifting each other up. I don’t see that represented on screen and I don’t see that represented in life. How do we bring the Black family back together when so many factors ripped us apart? That’s obviously a product of slavery and our oppression, and so I wanted to go against that.”
Light and Truth: The Singular Cinematography of Queen & Slim
Director of photography Tat Radcliffe cut his teeth shooting music videos with the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode in the 1990s. He and Matsoukas shared a desire to maintain an unconventional visual aesthetic reminiscent of the lighting and framing in director Hype Williams’ cult classic Belly.
Filming in Louisiana, particularly in New Orleans, offered Radcliffe unlimited possibilities when it came to his lighting plan amidst a kaleidoscope of color, textures and architecture. “I like to use available light as much as possible,” Radcliffe says, “and it was more a question of choosing the right time of day and adding an accent or two to what was an enchanting city full of life and texture. It was an absolute pleasure to shoot in New Orleans.”
The British cinematographer is equally comfortable operating the camera, which made for an easy partnership with Matsoukas for seamless tweaks to camera movements or discovering new dynamic shots in the moment. Matsoukas’s early background in photography is a major influence and reference point for her distinguished catalogue of work and continues with every new project. Her desire to shoot her first feature on film was an integral part to making her feature film directorial debut. “I always try to shoot on film,” Matsoukas says. “It just has a soul, it has a texture that you can’t duplicate.”
Radcliffe was all in favor of that decision. “The beauty of celluloid is that it can deal with the subtle variations of saturated colors which we wanted to incorporate into the lighting design,” Radcliffe says. “Film can be so wonderful for capturing the variegated subtleties of skin tone, and it helped to create a stylish aura around Jodie and Daniel.”
Queen & Slim is showcased in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, with the majority of the footage captured with two Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 cameras, while an aerial shot was photographed digitally with a drone. Kodak Vision3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 was used for the nighttime exteriors and Kodak Vision3 250D Color Negative Film 5207 for the daytime scenes. “I was keen to experiment with how the highlights subliminally work on everything from streetlamps to skin; that to me is what shooting on film is about,” Radcliffe states in an interview with Kodak:
“It is intriguing to me that film still has this extraordinary pull even though digital has become [the medium of choice].” Based on previous experiences with Panavision on White Boy Rick and Lovecraft Country, Radcliffe decided to use the company for Queen & Slim. “We wanted to shoot anamorphic so it was a no-brainer to go to Panavision for the glass. The lenses were the G-Series and included 35 mm, 4mm, 50mm, 75mm and 100mm. It was a mid-range fairly classic in terms of our size of lens with 40mm, 50mm and 75mm being our workhorses.”
Together Matsoukas and Radcliffe would strive to craft a singular approach to capture the grittiness of life and to imbue it with a scenic quality. “A lot of my choices as a director are based in authenticity,” Matsoukas says. “I love to capture real locations and people but then weave in a bit of style to it with a mixed light palette. I want the audience to be able to see the grittiness of life but make it feel natural and picturesque, utilizing natural light in really beautiful ways.”
Battling the Polar Vortex in the Edit Bay
For editor Pete Beaudreau, assembling Queen & Slim was a race against time – and this past winter’s intense Polar Vortex, which killed at least 22 people and also delayed shipments of material shot on film by as much as eight days. That left Beaudreau, who was based in New Orleans, scrambling to provide dailies to the production in Cleveland, where the movie’s emotionally charged sequence depicting the altercation with the police officer, and his death, was filmed.
Despite these challenges, Beaudreau enjoyed the fact that he and Matsoukas appeared to have similar tastes. “Our senses of pacing were really similar. Our tastes in performance were really similar. So I had confidence when the dailies were coming in that I was at least putting it together in a way that she had envisioned. Or at least it wouldn’t have been so far off the mark of what she had wanted,” he says in an ART OF THE CUT interview with ProVideo Coalition:
“Part of the mystery of the assembly is seeing what is important to the director through the footage that’s coming in. And as more footage comes in, the spotlight is getting larger in terms of what you’re tuned in to spotting and what becomes important for you in terms of how you’re selecting shots. How you’re even structuring individual scenes and then transitions between them.”
Matsoukas, in an interview with Cinema Blend, notes three films in particular that had an influence on the making of Queen & Slim:
“Belly by Hype Williams has influenced me so much as a filmmaker. The way he’s able to celebrate black culture with the lens, the way that he highlights us. I really consider him the godfather of modern day black cinema. He really redefined a visual language for my generation. And the way that he was able to play between something that was really commercial and beautiful and artful all at the same time. It was really intriguing to me as a filmmaker.”
The second film is Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 feature, In The Mood For Love, for its gentle pacing of the on-screen romance:
“I was thinking about making a love story, and I was trying to figure out like what my favorite film was in terms of passion, and that’s In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-wai. That tone, and those long languid moments and how he just allows their story to develop on screen without always having to be dependent on a script, but how all the elements of their environment kind of add to that passion and richness that these two characters have between them — that was really important. And I wanted to create literally that mood for love in a similar way.”
And the third film is Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001), for its engaging portrayal of the classic road trip:
“When I was thinking of car films and road movies and odyssey, and how to shoot a car — obviously that’s really challenging for a filmmaker cause you’re in this really tight space… But I knew we would spend a lot of time in a car, and so I was trying to figure out how there could be a progression to the way I shot the car; how it should mimic their relationship and their connection with each other. And the film that I looked to for that was Y Tu Mamá También.
I love how [Alfonso Cuarón] was able to shoot the car in different ways. Sometimes the camera is outside as the car travels through the landscape, and the environment becomes another character. And sometimes the camera is inside the car, and we’re actually a camera on the journey with them. I thought it was a really interesting approach to shooting a car that wasn’t expected. So I looked to that to help me in my approach to how to shoot these cars.”
Want more? Watch Matsoukas and Waithe, along with actor Daniel Kaluuya and producers Pamela Abdy and Michelle Knudsen discuss the making of Queen & Slim at an event hosted by the Motion Picture Academy on November 16, 2019 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, and check out a slew of clips from the film below: